Walking the Walk. Literally.

WMlongreinIt starts at the mounting block. Really. If you are still proving your testosterone (yes, you heard me) by ground mounting, give your horse and his withers a break. Go to the mounting block. Do it for him.

Once you are at the mounting block, take a minute and ask his permission by acknowledging him with a scratch and a kind word. Counter balance your weight between the stirrup and his off side, and come gently into the saddle. Exhale and give him a soft stroke on his neck. Park there and scan your body for stiffness or tension. Take your time; inflate the corners of your lungs, breathe deep to your sit bones. Let gravity soften your shoulder blades down your back. Breathe all the way to your soft ankles and warm fingernails. Yes, even in January.

His walk begins with your seat. So with an inhale and maybe a light calf squeeze, ask your horse to walk on. Engage your sit bones and follow the movement of his back. Be alive, don’t sit there like a cinder-block, but instead, let the movement of his steps release and massage your lower back. As your back loosens, then his back can loosen more, and then the mutual massage begins. Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason.

When his top-line has relaxed, reverse to the inside: Walk a half circle and then a diagonal line back to the rail. As he walks that half circle, turn from your waist and not the rein. His ribs expand and stretch on the outside and contract on the inside of the circle. Do another reverse and release the ribs on the other side too. Repeat.

Have you noticed I haven’t mentioned picking up the reins yet? Exactly.

Walk like you have some place to be. A ground covering walk is a 4 beat gait, relaxed and forward. Feel your horse’s back grow supple as he steps under, and his poll and neck should nod up and down with the rhythm of the walk. From the tip of his nose to the bang of his tail, nothing but fluid swinging movement.

With just your sit bones, ask for longer steps, and say thank you. Then smaller steps, and again, thank you. Reward him for taking a sweet, small cue. If he only took a tiny bit of the cue, reward him even more, so that he will want to try more.

Eventually, when you finally pick up the reins, be very aware of his poll softly nodding. You must follow with your hands, by letting your elbows be elastic so that his neck is not shortened by hitting the bit. If your hands inhibit the poll, your walk will lose rhythm.

“As long as he stiffens his poll, he also stiffens all of his other limbs. We may therefore not try to address them until he has yielded in his poll.” E.F.Seidler

Do you and your horse sleep-walk? Is your walk that thing that happens briefly before and after trot or canter? Do you think the walk is for boring egg-head dressage queens like me? Reconsider…

Nothing connects a horse and rider, mentally and physically, quicker than a conscious conversation at the walk. Dressage tests frequently have a double coefficient (2x score) for the walk, because it’s so important for your horse. The walk informs all the other work. Plus, starting slow gives the synovial fluid time to loosen his joints and he is more willing to work if he has warmed up correctly. (See Klimke warm-up here.)

Okay, it’s true. The walk is my favorite gait. I even love Walk Detention (read here). Bored already? Here are some walk exercises: (They should only take a few years to totally master.)

Practice free walk on a long rein, transition to a working walk on contact, shortening the reins without shortening his stride, and then back to a long rein. If his poll is level or lower than his withers, it’s correct for warm up and his back is getting stronger. The walk teaches your horse to relax and stretch his back, which in turn, improves all other work.

Practice inside leg to outside rein on arcs and circles. Pulse your inside calf as your horse’s barrel swings to the outside. Cue in rhythm with his barrel.

Walk a box: A quarter turn on the hind where there are cross over steps in front and the hind (yours and his) remains active. Turn at your waist to engage his shoulder and use outside rein/leg aid and no inside rein pull.

Balance and bend improves by walking a serpentine or figure 8, with a fluid change of bend, not disturbing your horse’s head as you change rein. Sometimes use a neck ring and remind yourself to ride with your body and not all hand.

All lateral movement starts at the walk. Leg-yield to start with a supple bend and rhythmic cues. If you lose forward, release and start back at the beginning.

Then crank up the music, let Sinatra croon Dancing Cheek to Cheek, and get lost in the walk. And truly, I can’t be the only one who liked the slow dance best, am I?

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Walk Detention

I’ve been remembering my first experience in Walk Detention. It was the dark ages and I was a training level rider on a young horse. I was so excited to ride in my first clinic with an Olympian- my enthusiasm sizzled audibly. I handed over a fat check, my horse was spit polished and I was in the arena with A Famous Trainer, ready for enlightenment.

My horse and I entered at a walk, 50 minutes later we left at a walk, and in between- we walked.  At first it felt normal to walk, but in a few minutes, I got self-conscious. Still walking? Was I so bad?

The clinician didn’t call it Walk Detention- that’s my pet name for it.

Walking felt dull, like an interim gait, a means to an end. It’s easy for a rider to be in a hurry to somewhere else and ignore the present. Being in Walk Detention gave me a chance to be/here/now with my horse. Once I got there, sadly, I had to admit it was new territory.

So I swallowed my humiliation and pried my mind open. Soon, I was mesmerized with our walking meditation. My horse was responding to every movement of my seat, in a fluid, forward way. There was a peaceful rhythm that felt like effortless perpetual motion. No rush and no drag, just flow- and both of our minds met there. I had a conscious awareness of movement and partnership that felt brand new: walk euphoria!

Awk! This gait best suited to watching paint dry was the passageway to an alternate universe- one with better balance.

“Going slow does not prevent arriving.” Nigerian Proverb

And I felt like an idiot… The lesson ended and I dismounted and thanked the Olympic rider, humble with my expanded reality. The Olympian asked if my horse was for sale, but I was certain she felt sorry for us, so I ducked my head and left the arena.

I un-tacked, gave my horse an apologetic lunch, and shuffled back to the arena to watch the upper level riders. No one got out of the walk that day-regardless of the level of the horse or rider. My bruised ego took a small fluff from that.

In dressage we agree: the walk is the most difficult gait, it’s primary and elite all at once. It’s the easiest gait to mess up and the hardest one to inspire.

It’s decades later, and Walk Detention is still my very favorite place to be with a horse.  Even now, each ride, every lesson begins with that walk where breath, rhythm and intention reconnect horse and rider. Because without that walk, there won’t be that trot…

Learning to go slow is an acquired skill, especially with horses. All my clients reading this are smiling- they all know Walk Detention and some even ask for it- the miracle cure for all sorts of irregularities. The walk is the place we all fell in love, and it is the place all good things come together.

Looking for a spring riding tip? How about some time in Walk Detention, where you have no place to be but with each other.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.